The following piece is excerpted with permission from Leslie Martin’s digital project “Strolling Down Nevsky Prospect,” completed for REES 577: Socialist and Post-Socialist Cities. To view the rest of the digital project, visit http://lesliemartin.georgetown.domains/NevskiiProspect/.
To see and to be seen: Purposeful Social Display
“Though you may have some sort of necessary, indispensable business, once you enter it you are sure to forget all business. Here is the only place where people do not go out of necessity, where they are not driven by the need and mercantile interest that envelop the whole of Petersburg.” – Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospect, 245
Nevsky has always been a place of “social display,” even during Soviet times. Catriona Kelly paints a vivid picture of Nevsky as a constant meeting place:
“The post-revolutionary years had seen the democratization of this formerly elegant street, and it was perambulated by a motley crowd, from indigents up to groups dressed for an evening out. In the 1960s, the more fashionable ‘sunny’ or south-facing side between Liteinyi and ploschad’ Vosstaniya was familiarly known, among young Bohemians, as Brodvei (Broadway) or Brod, and used as a place to converge. The nickname vanished with this generation, but the preference for the place survived. The prominence of Nevsky was assured by its uniqueness. There simply was no other comparable street for strolling, nowhere else you could be certain of meeting someone you knew, and probably more than once.” (Kelly, 260)
I can personally attest that it is easy to run into friends and acquaintances on Nevsky and I knew less than fifty people in the entire city, the majority of whom did not live in the city center. Considering the fact that the majority of shopping and nightlife are located on or just off of Nevsky, no one should ever be surprised to meet a friend there. Nevsky is the center; it is a magnet for business, tourism, youth, and beauty. As historian Ronald Hingley noted on his trip in 1961 to Leningrad that “It is surprising to find anywhere in Russia so many well-dressed and attractive women as you can now see on the Nevsky Prospect” (quoted in Kelly, 260).
The Soviet Impact: A Nevsky in Leningrad — What’s the point?
After the Revolution, St. Petersburg was downgraded in nearly everyway possible for two reasons: one, the Bolsheviks wanted to break with Russia’s imperial past; two, the city was overwhelmingly form over function. The imperial capital was underdeveloped, could not serve the immediate needs of the new ruling class and it was difficult to see how the city could meet the demands of the Revolution: “In Marxist terms, the superstructure elegiac romance and heightened emotions meant, at base, insufficient provisions, poor roads and transportation, and a moribund industry.” (Goscilo and Norris, xiii)
The Bolsheviks for all intents and purposes abandoned the imperial capital and many argue that the city remained frozen in time, a living museum of a Russia that no longer existed. As a result, the city – and especially the city center – remained distinctly un-Soviet. Decades after the Revolution, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in his prose poem “The City on the Neva” that to his great pleasure “no wedding-cake skyscraper may elbow its way onto Nevksy Prospect.” (1960)
In practical terms, the Bolsheviks’ abandonment of Leningrad meant that centers of state authority were moved to Moscow. Leningrad’s nationwide role was deemphasized and over time the city became provincial in its own way. This is exhibited in the simple fact that Moscow was developed into a transportation hub, first with railways, and later with airplanes. (Kelly, 31)
So where did that leave Nevsky? In the new socialist state, what role could Nevsky – a commercial and social hub for the old elite – possibly play on the path to Communism? Would there an ideological impact Nevsky? Largely no.
In 1918, the Bolsheviks officially renamed the street Prospect of the 25 of October, but the new name did not take root among the locals, and, as before, everyone continued to refer to it as Nevsky Prospect.
In the 1960s and later in the 1980s there were suggestions for the removal of all shops on Nevsky. But in official plans that called for a reduction the number of shops, there were also provisions for increasing the number of cultural institutions on the street. (Kelly, 170) Perhaps the removal of shops had more to do with preserving St. Petersburg as a cultural capital and less with communist ideology. Gostinyi Dvor on Nevsky remained a major shopping center, living up to its resplendent past. (Kelly, 185)
Who “won” Nevsky?
Throughout its 300 year history, Nevsky has been dominated by aesthetics, an idealized view of history, and commerce. These three constants are also found in the narrative of St. Petersburg, which can not be told without Nevsky.
St. Petersburg was designed and, to an extent, maintained as “a visually stunning showcase of Russia’s imperial ambitions” (Goscilo and Norris, ix). In his essay in honor of the city’s 300th anniversary, curator, Arkadii Ippolitaor described St. Petersburg as “the City in a porcelain snuffbox”. (Goscilo and Norris, x). These sentiments have led to the idea that the city is not for living in, but a museum to experience.
“St. Petersburg no longer exists as a city, for it as become a museum piece, much like an eighteenth-century snuffbox.”
What separates Nevsky from the rest of the city is its constant movement of vehicles, people and capital. It has been the movement of people on and money to Nevsky that allows the street to remain uniquely Nevsky – a center on its own.
Leslie Martin (MAERES ’16) is currently a Project Assistant for Eurasia at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).